[Marxism] Race and class in Latin America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 15 09:26:56 MST 2006


Latin America is preparing to settle accounts with its white settler elite
The political movements and protests sweeping the continent - from Bolivia 
to Venezuela - are as much about race as class

Richard Gott
Wednesday November 15, 2006
The Guardian

The recent explosion of indigenous protest in Latin America, culminating in 
the election this year of Evo Morales, an Aymara indian, as president of 
Bolivia, has highlighted the precarious position of the white-settler elite 
that has dominated the continent for so many centuries. Although the term 
"white settler" is familiar in the history of most European colonies, and 
comes with a pejorative ring, the whites in Latin America (as in the US) 
are not usually described in this way, and never use the expression 
themselves. No Spanish or Portuguese word exists that can adequately 
translate the English term.

Latin America is traditionally seen as a continent set apart from colonial 
projects elsewhere, the outcome of its long experience of settlement since 
the 16th century. Yet it truly belongs in the history of the global 
expansion of white-settler populations from Europe in the more recent 
period. Today's elites are largely the product of the immigrant European 
culture that has developed during the two centuries since independence.

The characteristics of the European empires' white-settler states in the 
19th and 20th centuries are well known. The settlers expropriated the land 
and evicted or exterminated the existing population; they exploited the 
surviving indigenous labour force on the land; they secured for themselves 
a European standard of living; and they treated the surviving indigenous 
peoples with extreme prejudice, drafting laws to ensure they remained 
largely without rights, as second- or third-class citizens.

Latin America shares these characteristics of "settler colonialism", an 
evocative term used in discussions about the British empire. Together with 
the Caribbean and the US, it has a further characteristic not shared by 
Europe's colonies elsewhere: the legacy of a non-indigenous slave class. 
Although slavery had been abolished in much of the world by the 1830s, the 
practice continued in Latin America (and the US) for several decades. The 
white settlers were unique in oppressing two different groups, seizing the 
land of the indigenous peoples and appropriating the labour of their 
imported slaves.

A feature of all "settler colonialist" societies has been the ingrained 
racist fear and hatred of the settlers, who are permanently alarmed by the 
presence of an expropriated underclass. Yet the race hatred of Latin 
America's settlers has only had a minor part in our customary understanding 
of the continent's history and society. Even politicians and historians on 
the left have preferred to discuss class rather than race.

In Venezuela, elections in December will produce another win for Hugo 
Chávez, a man of black and Indian origin. Much of the virulent dislike 
shown towards him by the opposition has been clearly motivated by race 
hatred, and similar hatred was aroused the 1970s towards Salvador Allende 
in Chile and Juan Perón in Argentina. Allende's unforgivable crime, in the 
eyes of the white-settler elite, was to mobilise the rotos, the "broken 
ones" - the patronising and derisory name given to the vast Chilean 
underclass. The indigenous origins of the rotos were obvious at Allende's 
political demonstrations. Dressed in Indian clothes, their affinity with 
their indigenous neighbours would have been apparent. The same could be 
said of the cabezas negras - "black heads" - who came out to support Perón.

This unexplored parallel has become more apparent as indigenous 
organisations have come to the fore, arousing the whites' ancient fears. A 
settler spokesman, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian-now-Spanish novelist, 
has accused the indigenous movements of generating "social and political 
disorder", echoing the cry of 19th-century racist intellectuals such as 
Colonel Domingo Sarmiento of Argentina, who warned of a choice between 
"civilisation and barbarism".

Latin America's settler elites after independence were obsessed with all 
things European. They travelled to Europe in search of political models, 
ignoring their own countries beyond the capital cities, and excluding the 
majority from their nation-building project. Along with their imported 
liberal ideology came the racialist ideas common among settlers elsewhere 
in Europe's colonial world. This racist outlook led to the downgrading and 
non-recognition of the black population, and, in many countries, to the 
physical extermination of indigenous peoples. In their place came millions 
of fresh settlers from Europe.

Yet for a brief moment during the anti-colonial revolts of the 19th 
century, radical voices took up the Indian cause. A revolutionary junta in 
Buenos Aires in 1810 declared that Indians and Spaniards were equal. The 
Indian past was celebrated as the common heritage of all Americans, and 
children dressed as Indians sang at popular festivals. Guns cast in the 
city were christened in honour of Tupac Amaru and Mangoré, famous leaders 
of Indian resistance. In Cuba, early independence movements recalled the 
name of Hatuey, the 16th-century cacique, and devised a flag with an Indian 
woman entwined with a tobacco leaf. Independence supporters in Chile evoked 
the Araucanian rebels of earlier centuries and used Arauco symbols on their 
flags. Independence in Brazil in 1822 brought similar displays, with the 
white elite rejoicing in its Indian ancestry and suggesting that Tupi, 
spoken by many Indians, might replace Portuguese as the official language.

The radicals' inclusive agenda sought to incorporate the Indian majority 
into settler society. Yet almost immediately this strain of progressive 
thought disappears from the record. Political leaders who sought to be 
friendly with the indigenous peoples were replaced by those anxious to 
participate in the global campaign to exterminate indigenous peoples. The 
British had already embarked on that task in Australia and South Africa, 
and the French took part after 1830 when they invaded Algeria.

Latin America soon joined in. The purposeful extermination of indigenous 
peoples in the 19th century may well have been on a larger scale than 
anything attempted by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the earlier 
colonial period. Millions of Indians died because of a lack of immunity to 
European diseases, yet the early colonists needed the Indians to grow food 
and to provide labourers. They did not have the same economic necessity to 
make the land free from Indians that would provoke the extermination 
campaigns on other continents in the same era. The true Latin American 
holocaust occurred in the 19th century.

The slaughter of Indians made more land available for settlement, and 
between 1870 and 1914 five million Europeans migrated to Brazil and 
Argentina. In many countries the immigration campaigns continued well into 
the 20th century, sustaining the hegemonic white-settler culture that has 
lasted to this day.

Yet change is at last on the agenda. Recent election results have been 
described, with some truth, as a move to the left, since several new 
governments have revived progressive themes from the 1960s. Yet from a 
longer perspective these developments look more like a repudiation of Latin 
America's white-settler culture, and a revival of that radical tradition of 
inclusion attempted two centuries ago. The outline of a fresh struggle, 
with a final settling of accounts, can now be discerned.

· This article is based on the third annual SLAS lecture, given to the 
Society for Latin American Studies in October. Richard Gott is the author 
of Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press)

Rwgott at aol.com



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